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The Mark and Means of Spiritual Maturity: Private Prayer

If you've been coming to the Cary Campus for any length of time, it's probaly no secret that I have a deep love and appreciation for the ministry of J.C. Ryle. Excluding the Biblical writers, Ryle has done much good to my soul (Many prefaces to his writings include his aim: "To do the most good to as many souls as possible..."). Ryle has been a good friend ("He is the best friend who tells you the most truth"). 

In Practical Religion, Ryle writes, "Prayer is the most important subject in practical religion" (p. 59). Most important? That's a staggering claim. He didn't say the most important subject was worship, or giving, or love, or sanctification. He said prayer.

Do you think this way? Would you have said prayer is the most important subject in all of your walk with God? Double-click that thought with me. Zoom in. Ryle says:

"...of all the evidence of real work of the Spirit, a habit of hearty private prayer is one of the most satisfactory that can be named. A man may preach from false motives. A man may write books, and make fine speechees, and seem diligent in good works, and yet be a Judas Iscariot. But a man seldom goes into his closet, and pours his soul before God in secret, unless he is in earnest. The Lord himself has set his stamp on prayer as the best proof of a true conversion" (p. 62-63).

We can sing and serve, read and write, give and go and not have a heart that loves God. Certainly, we can ask in prayer with wrong motives, but look at the heart of what Ryle is saying: "...a habit of hearty private prayer..." Prayer, according to Ryle, is "the best proof of true conversion." It is the mark of spiritual life. But it's not just a mark of spiritual life - it's also a means of satisfication in the Lord:

"The only way to be really happy, in such a world as this is to be ever casting all your cares on God." (JC Ryle, Practical Religion, p. 75)

Prayer, then, is both a means and a mark of spiritual maturity. Prayer is a means and a mark of happiness and delight in God. So, then, how do we pray?

“And Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’’” - (Genesis 32:9-12 ESV)

Jacob takes the promises of God back to God. Jacob goes before the Lord with the Lord's very words. By way of application, let me encourage us to do the same. As you read through the Bible this year, practice taking the promises of God back to God in prayer. O, the delight that God has in responding to his children when we come to him by saying, "Father, you said..."


Recently, I’ve been reading Practical Religion by JC Ryle (written in 1878). Consider these quotes from his chapter on prayer:

  • “Prayer is the most important subject in practical religion” (p. 59).
  • “I have come to the conclusion that the great majority of professing Christians do not pray at all” (p. 64).

Ryle says that when people pray “they seem to be taking up a fresh thing” (p. 66). Why would this be? Why does prayer seem a fresh, foreign thing to us? Could it be that prayer seems to be a fresh thing because it is, in fact, a fresh thing? Could it be that three minutes of corporate prayer (or 10 minutes of corporate worship) is foreign because three minutes of private prayer (and 10 minutes of private worship) is foreign?

It is here that Ryle offers help:

  • “In every journey there must be a first step. There must be a change from sitting still to moving forward” (p. 78).
  • “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God…The weakest infant can cry when he is hungry…” (p. 77).

What praise is God worthy of? Tell him. What grace do you find yourself needing today? Ask him.

Everything we do in private affects what we do in public. Our private worship affects our public worship. Our private prayer life affects our public, corporate prayer life. Let’s resolve to be a church whose public prayer and worship is an accurate reflection of our private prayer and worship.